It’s usually the case that films are eternally accessible while great theatre productions disappear forever. But Stephen Daldry has managed to blur the distinction. Not only can you always watch his celluloid work – three movies, three Oscar nominations as best director – but his brilliant production of An Inspector Calls never seems to go away either.
First staged at the National Theatre in 1992, his thrillingly re-imagined version of JB Priestley’s angry, socialist whodunit-with-a-difference was in the West End for most of the next decade, toured the country for a couple of years until 2005, and is now back in London after another six-month UK tour – as fresh and mesmerising as it was 17 years ago.
Daldry admits that he directs the piece “almost inflexion to inflexion”, so old hands shouldn't expect any surprises in this ain't-broke-don't-fix-it revival. But for first-timers it’s a three-act feast of the unexpected.
The play itself, about a mysterious inspector quizzing the wealthy Birling family about the suicide of a young woman to whom they each turn out to be connected, is full of its own twists and turns, and the fact that it was once a stalwart of unthrilling, cheap rep should not be allowed to obscure Priestley’s passionate inventiveness.
But Daldry’s daring vision is to frame the conventional drawing-room piece within a rain-swept, battle-scarred landscape, with moody strings and ominous percussion wrapping the cut-glass chatter in a blanket of anger and menace, and a silent cast of soldiers and urchins adding an accusing, ghostly presence.
The star of the show has always been Ian MacNeil’s extraordinary set, an unfolding doll’s house on stilts amid the post-apocalyptic ruins. Its cramped scale mocks the Birlings’ social values, while its shock transformation in the third act remains a landmark coup de theatre: once seen, never forgotten.
As the all-knowing Inspector Goole, with head-scratching puzzlement at the cruelty of the world turning in an instant into accusing fury, Nicholas Woodeson leads a first-rate cast. Marianne Oldham is particularly good as the newly engaged Sheila Birling, her initial defensive hysteria maturing into awakening conscience, while Sandra Duncan, in reams of silk and miles of pearls, provides glorious comedy as her gorgon of a mother. They are ably joined by David Roper as the bloated capitalist Birling, Robin Whiting as his disturbed, idealistic son Eric and Timothy Watson as Sheila’s handsome but erring fiancé Gerald.
And in a bold rebuff to ageism, 81-year-old Diana Payne-Myers, who played the Birlings’ near-wordless maid in the original West End production, is back in the same role, an unsettling presence whose evolution from humble servant to vengeful tricoteuse provides a haunting final tableau.
- Simon Edge